Talking Morph: An Interview with Peter Lord

In 2014, we chatted with Aardman founder and Morph creator Peter Lord about his passion for stop-motion animation and the series of brand new Morph webisodes launched by Aardman on YouTube. In light of the recent news that the next series of Morph will debut on Sky’s new kids app, we’ve republished that interview from our news archives here on the Puppet Place News Blog.


37 years ago, Peter Lord and co-collaborator David Sproxton bought a cheeky yet lovable stop-motion character to our screens in the form of Morph.  Now he’s back in a series of brand new online adventures.  In this exclusive interview for Puppet Place, Peter Lord explains why Morph has returned and how stop-motion and traditional puppetry still engages and delights audiences worldwide.

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Morph is the product of traditional stop-motion animation.  What is his appeal as a stop-motion puppet (as opposed to a CGI/digital Morph)?  Do you feel that projects such as this one are important to keep traditional processes alive for new audiences to experience? 

The whole question of which animation technique we use, always looms large for us at Aardman. Very large. More than forty years ago (!) we committed to stop-frame animation, with a speciality in animating modelling clay. That decision at the time was fortuitous and uncalculated – and I’ve never regretted it since – but it wasn’t any sort of statement. We didn’t then nail our colours to the mast and say “we are the champions of hand-made animation” because in fact all animation then was hand-made. If not sculpted, or manipulated, then at least drawn by hand with pencils, paper and paint.

But since that start, the world of animation has changed beyond expectation, ambition or imagination. Now the vast majority of the ‘animation’ that is produced around the world is CGI. I have no figures, I’m no expert. But if I had to make a guess, it would be that more than 95% of the world’s animation is now produced on a computer.  We at Aardman produce a substantial part of our output (substantial, but neither famous nor much loved!) on computers too.

For us, doing computer animation was a necessary ‘defensive’ step. We could see the obvious trends; we could see that stop-motion was being regarded as ever more quirky and marginal and – frankly – we were losing a lot of work. Twenty years ago, we made adverts for Lurpak butter imitating butter with wax and modelling clay. The client didn’t commission the films because they were examples of amazing craftsmanship; they commissioned them because we could convincingly create the illusion of Living Butter. But today that illusion is created more convincingly and easily in CGI.

So that aspect of our work was clearly flying out of the window. As a strategic decision we ‘got into’ CGI and have been there ever since. We do it very well, and make a lot of beautiful work. But the work we’re best known for – the work which is most loved – is invariably what I’d call ‘hand made’ animation: Morph, Shaun the Sheep (voted the country’s favourite children’s TV character of the last 50 years!) and Wallace and Gromit are all loved and appreciated for being obviously, visibly what they are; animated puppets, animated by hand and, what’s more, visibly bearing the fingerprints of their creators.

We believe that an audience appreciates and enjoys the fact that they can se how the film is made. As well as showing fingerprints, dints and dust on the puppets themselves (though never too much) – we also animate in a style we call ‘double-frame’. Simply put, we move the puppets twelve times a second, not twenty-four. So if you break down any given gesture on the screen, there are less individual still images. If Morph raises his hand in half a second, his gesture is made up of 6 separate movements, each a twelfth of a second long – whereas in CGI, you would have 12 separate movements each one twenty-fourth of a second long. In summary: our style is less smooth. There’s an acceptable clunkiness, a ‘stepiness’ in the movement. It keeps the audience aware that this is hand-made, human – but also I will say it gives a directness and an energy to the animation as well.

Fundamental to our style is the belief that the audience enjoys animation more precisely because they are aware of how it’s done. Children (and adults too) can watch with the knowledge that somewhere that puppet actually exists – it has weight, mass, scale – it reminds them of playing themselves with toys. It reminds them of ‘animating’ their own dolls and teddy-bears giving them voices, thoughts and emotions. The audience senses the tangibility, reality and accessibility of the work.

Morph has typically appeared in short animations of around 60 – 90 seconds.  In this respect he lends himself well to online distribution.  Are there other factors that led to decision to release his new adventures via YouTube, rather than traditional broadcast routes? 

It was an interesting choice. We felt that releasing only 15 films, each about a minute and a half long, was a way to ‘test out’ a character. Obviously, Morph has been around for a long time. Does he need testing out? Well for potential broadcasters, probably “yes”. The old films looked and sounded old. Nobody could be sure if a new generation would react well to them.  If you make a ‘conventional’ TV series, it’s a huge investment in many, many ways. First off, it’ll cost some millions of pounds to make, so our development team will have to spend months and years raising the money.

Having done that, experience tells us that we can’t, by any means, raise all the production costs up front. So as a company we either have to borrow, or we have to invest a lot of our own capital in expectation of recouping it eventually through TV sales, what are called second-cycle sales (no, I don’t know what they are either), merchandising, licensing etc. etc. Then attempting to win the money back is in itself a costly enterprise, tying up people who could be working on something more lucrative – To cut to the chase, we have a couple of projects on our books which have failed to ‘deliver’, which may have been critically acclaimed and well-loved – but not well enough. These are the projects which don’t ‘break through’ and are liable to leave us with very considerable losses.

So to avoid this, when we do go to the expense of investing in a series, we want to be pretty damn sure they’re going to work. Building up a committed online audience is one way to be sure. So the whole adventure of new Morph episodes, half funded by Kickstarter and released on YouTube has been an exciting new experiment. Can we find a new way to test and release new ideas?

You recently tweeted about the Royal de Luxe ‘giant granny’ puppetry performance in Liverpool. Do you see common factors in the enduring appeal of traditional puppetry and stop-motion? What do you feel is distinct and different that traditional puppetry can bring to an audience?

I do believe that the appeal of traditional, real-time puppetry is closely aligned to the appeal of what we do. I mentioned it above. In both cases, big-picture, what would I say was most important? Always, always, I’d say ‘story-telling’ first. That’s what people have come to watch. Compelling, engrossing, transporting, funny, tragic. There’s no substitute for great story-telling. And then to me, I’d say performance was next in order of importance.

Performance as a structural necessity of story-telling. If your audience can be moved, seduced, beguiled and generally completely taken-in by performance, then your story-telling stands on a great foundation. And then thirdly perhaps I’d come to the execution part of the puzzle. In the case of ‘traditional’ puppetry, the audience is almost always aware of ‘how it’s done’. The puppeteer is there visibly before them. Or if not, the strings and the rods. And the puppet is visibly made of wood and foam and fabric – clearly it’s not animate – but the audience can see it’s alive and, if the performance is good, actually empathise with it.

Stop-motion animation has a similar thing going on though in truth it’s not quite so blatant. But Wallace’s face is clearly made of Plasticine. Shaun’s wool is clearly cotton wool and Morph is visibly squeezed out of a lump of modelling clay.  In both worlds, the joy for the audience comes from co-operation and collusion. They can see the character isn’t alive. They believe it is. Or they’re happy at least to accept it as the medium for the story-teller.

And although I’m neither a historian of theatre, nor a psychologist, it seems obvious to me that the art of puppetry, the art of ‘giving life’ – which is of course what ‘animation’ is all about – speaks to something very deep in our human make-up. Young children playing pick up a doll or a Lego figure and they make it move, they give it a voice – they may visit joy or tragedy upon it – it’s apposition of power. Young children, who have relatively little freedom or power (apparently) can become Gods in the world of their imagination and I think it’d a very compelling place to be. I still love doing it.

You’ve spoken of the appeal of Morph as (relatively) quick compared to larger scale stop-motion projects. A quality of ‘spontaneity’ also brings to mind earlier Aardman shorts – ‘Animated Conversations’ and ‘Creature Comforts’ – where the spontaneity of the spoken audio is an essential element. Do you regard this spontaneous quality as a key part of your approach to animation? Do you feel there are (perhaps less obvious) ways to include this sense of spontaneity as part of the creative and production process for slower, larger-scale productions?

I love the notion of spontaneity in animation.  Well, in life generally, but we’re talking about animation here.

People don’t associate the one with the other. People think animation is a slow grinding process a bit like building the pyramids, and yes, OK, it can be, but stop-motion animation does contain spontaneity in it. When the animator comes onto the set and approaches the puppet, anything is possible. Of course in large-scale production, there’s always a script which is designed to stop the animator flying of into unwelcome reaches of fantasy and freedom. Story, as I said before, is everything and the animator for all his or her skill and flair is an agent of the story.

But even so, in detail the animator can make it up as he/she goes along. He/she can have an idea in mid-shot and change tack, follow their instinct or follow their inspiration.  I was also talking about spontaneity in terms of the production itself. It was a delight to have a small team, a sort of relaxed regime and a high-energy culture, so that we got ideas from brain to film pretty quickly. Though even as I write the words, I’m aware that compared to live action puppetry, our regime is glacially slow at best.

Still, from personal experience, when the main shoot was over, I could go onto the set with a puppet I’d made myself in 30 minutes and improvise a short performance piece (about 15 seconds) all within a day. In animation terms, that’s truly spontaneous!

Using live, unscripted recorded speech – as we’ve done many times – is a way of bringing spontaneity into animation. In that case, the film-maker is sort of mining into a rich vein of true spontaneity (the unprepared outpourings of the brain). However translating that to the screen is still, always an elaborate, careful process.

Interview by Emma Windsor


The webisodes can still be seen on the Official Morph channel on YouTube.  For the latest news and updates on Morph, see his Official Facebook page.

 

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